Mistry Takes Internship to New Heights with Virtual Reality Work

Mon, 01/09/2023 - 15:00
Megan Phillips

Moving across the country at 19 years old is no small feat, but Anika Mistry, who interned at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, last summer, was up for the challenge.

From Santa Cruz, California, Mistry initially chose to leap from the West Coast to the East Coast in 2021 upon acceptance to Johns Hopkins University (JHU). After wrapping up her first year at JHU, where she studies computer science and cognitive science, she decided to accept APL’s internship offer and continue her time in Maryland, instead of spending the summer close to family and friends.

“I am only nineteen, so at first my parents were not too thrilled about me going back to the East Coast for the summer,” said Mistry. “When you’re in college, you are in a very tight-knit community where there are still people looking out for you in a way. You stay in a bubble. But when you are in the real world, at an internship, you don’t have that bubble. You are forced to be an adult.” Mistry knew that to make such a big leap, she had to be positive that this internship aligned with her interests and be realistic about living by herself in a new place. Ultimately, she was ready.

With resilience and bravery, Mistry arrived at APL in June, embarking on a new journey of independence and assigned to work within the Laboratory’s Information Technology Services Department. She was ecstatic to intern in person. ”I finished out my high school years over Zoom, so I know how hard it is to meet people and learn online,” said Mistry. “The fact that I would be able to go in person, meet people and have that face-to-face connection was really important to me.”

Staff members in Mistry’s group immediately took her under their wing. “They treated me like I had been working at APL for years and they had known me for years,” she said. “They were very supportive.” Within the group, Mistry worked on a virtual reality (VR) project that used Unity, a development software, in which she coded in C# to create a 3D environment for users.

Mistry appreciated the exposure she received to highly specialized resources at APL, as she began working on a VR project. The opportunity to work on this project rather than obtain a general coding internship was an incredible draw for her, because she has a history with VR ventures.

“I first started working with VR as a freshman in high school. I had a friend with high-functioning autism and she was not able to get resources in her school,” said Mistry. This sparked an idea. “I told myself there’s definitely a way we can fix this. There’s definitely some sort of technology we can use.” She then began researching how VR technology might be capable of improving education for individuals with neurodiversity such as autism.

Throughout her four years of high school, Mistry worked to develop a VR aid, testing it on individuals at a local learning center. “It was a process of going back and forth. I would create something and recognize ‘this doesn’t work,’ so I would change it,” she said. After years of development, she created a full game that could be used on VR headsets to contribute to one’s learning process.

Mistry’s VR creation was recognized with a Yale Science & Engineering Association Award, was selected as a Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) finalist and achieved second place at the Scripps Research SciMet Competition. Additionally, her hard work led to her receiving the Hodson Trust Scholarship, a four-year merit-based scholarship at JHU that opened her eyes to what a future with technology may hold. “I can combine my interest in technology with social impact and really create something that helps the world,” she said.

While working on the project, Mistry’s appreciation for VR lived on. “I fell in love with this idea of a metaverse and how we can create this new environment around us that feels so real just by putting on a headset,” she shared. “I honestly think it is the way of the future.” From educational games to military air combat missions, there are myriad possibilities for VR usage. She looks forward to pursuing a career that encompasses this innovative technology — possibly at APL.

Beyond VR, Mistry was impressed by the diversity of work going on at the Laboratory, noting that she feels as if APL is 20 companies all in one. She also confessed that being in such an innovative workplace could be both incredible and intimidating. “You are around so many smart people working on impactful projects that could really change the world,” she remarked. “It’s really easy to feel like you don’t know enough to succeed in this environment, but it’s important to remember you do.”

Ultimately, Mistry gained a tremendous amount of confidence through her APL internship. “This internship showed me that I could do this job when I am out of college. I can work in this field. I can live by myself in a new place,” she said. She left the Laboratory in August to begin preparing for her sophomore year at JHU. Whether it is within our objective reality or virtual, on the East Coast or West, she is on track to create positive change wherever she goes.

Learn more about APL’s internship opportunities on the Lab’s careers site.